Society tends to envision the traditional alcoholic as someone who is stumbling-down drunk and completely out of control. An individual so out of it on a regular basis, they couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything but an alcoholic.
The truth isn’t quite as simple – In fact, many alcoholics are “high-functioning,” meaning they manage to hold down a job, raise children, and have successful relationships. Yet, in the shadows, they continue to drink heavily and to excess.
What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?
A high-functioning alcoholic is essentially someone who drinks often and to excess, yet manages to retain control over their everyday life. From the outside-in, they appear to be a responsible, contributing member of society. They don’t demonstrate the “traditional symptoms of alcoholism,” and they rarely present as an alcoholic to the outside world – even when they’re drinking.
In fact, most high-functioning alcoholics fly under the radar for years. They aren’t generally arrested for alcohol-related crimes, and people don’t often find them passed out as a result of drinking at inopportune times. This, combined with the fact that they manage to retain such tight control over their lives, can lead to denial about drinking habits, which restricts the addict from getting help.
Nearly all high-functioning alcoholics start out in control of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they maintain control for life. Eventually, alcoholism claims everything, leading to loss of employment, divorce, and hardship right across the board.
So, what can you do if you think you might be struggling with alcoholism? Get to know the associated red flags in this post. If you can relate to any of the entries, it may be time to reach out for help.
Using Alcohol to Cope With Life
Society treats drinking to soothe negative emotions or life problems as comedic, permissible, and harmless. While there’s really nothing wrong with having a glass of red wine after a breakup (provided you aren’t an alcoholic, of course), using alcohol to cope with life is by its very nature maladaptive.
The problem with drinking as a coping mechanism is that it isn’t really effective. In fact, it’s downright harmful and could leave you in an even worse position. Once the alcohol wears off, you’re still forced to face your issues – only this time, you’re hung over. It becomes very easy to justify “one more drink” to numb the pain.
It’s easy to see how this might spiral out of control for someone facing seemingly insurmountable problems.
Denying Obvious Behavioral Consequences
We’ve all had that one friend who denies that drinking changes how they behave. Maybe they show up to the party, drink, hit on someone’s girlfriend, vomit, and pass out in a bedroom. Or, maybe they just become slightly abrasive and belligerent, ruining the party.
Others just become a bit too friendly, tell awful jokes, or maybe even become withdrawn. The main takeaway here is that there’s a negative behavioral consequence that isn’t desirable to them OR the people around them.
It’s exceptionally common for high-functioning alcoholics to completely deny the negative behavioral consequences of drinking. Sometimes, this is because they truly cannot remember how they behaved. More often, it’s a strategy to help them avoid taking responsibility or admitting they have a problem.
Drinking to Excess
What exactly is “drinking to excess,” anyway? While exact numbers depend on many factors, including what you drink and how often you drink, the HHS does answer this question within Dietary Guidelines 2015 – 2020.
The numbers may surprise you – they aren’t actually that high. In fact, the definition of moderate drinking is just one drink per day, or seven total per week. Men have a slightly larger cushion – up to two drinks per day, or 14 per week.
But that doesn’t mean if you’re drinking less than this, you’re okay – in fact, what you drink also plays a significant role.
The Dietary Guidelines classifies a “drink” as something containing no more than around 14 grams of alcohol. To simplify, that’s around 12 fluid ounces of 5 percent beer, around 5 fluid ounces of wine, or just 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof whiskey.
There’s a big difference between drinking seven 4% alcohol coolers and drinking seven shots of 80-proof whiskey. And even if you drink less, if it negatively impacts your life, it’s still a problem. Use these numbers as a rough guideline only.
Making “Drinking Rules” (and Often Breaking Them)
High-functioning alcoholics very often have good intentions about restricting the amount of drinking they do. In fact, they may even create rules (“I’ll only have two drinks after work” or “I’m only drinking beer tonight.”) about their drinking in an effort to feel “in control.”
But as with any other alcoholic, those rules often slip by the wayside, forgotten as the powerful desire to drink takes over. Instead of having just two drinks after work, they finish the entire bottle of wine in one sitting. Or, they start with beer, but end up drinking 10 shots of tequila after their inhibitions come down.
Having “rules” about how and when you drink is smart – in fact, it’s a great way to help yourself maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol. If you find yourself repeatedly breaking your own rules, it’s a sign of a problem.
Playing the “Alcoholic Joker”
This is another case of “we all have that one friend…” Only, this time, the friend is the person who continuously jokes about their drinking habits in an effort to make light of them.
They get home from work, crack a bottle of wine, flop down and send a selfie to a friend, who incredulously asks them if they’re really drinking yet again. “Haha…yeah. I’m such a lush” is the response – or maybe “I don’t have a drinking problem…I have a drinking solution for boring people!”
While this may seem good-natured (and it can be, if it’s a once-off), it is far more common for this to be an attempt at distraction. By making a joke out of their drinking, the high-functioning alcoholic shifts concern away from themselves; the joke itself becomes the focus, normalizing their behavior.
Humor is effective because it makes us feel good – like everything is okay. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes it so effective, here, too.
Denying Drinking or Hiding Alcohol
If someone drinks responsibly, there’s really no reason to sneak around and hide alcohol. When someone begins to be deceptive about when, where, and how they drink, it’s a sign they’re already feeling like they’re doing something wrong.
Maybe they sneak a snifter of brandy into work to pour into their coffee, or maybe they keep a wine bottle hidden in their nightstand. They might even stash little mickey bottles around the house, in the car, or outside.
If pressed about these strange behaviors, or even just their own drinking, they’ll deny it or even flat-out lie. They feel ashamed of the truth, or just unable to speak it, because they know it will bring attention to what may already be a problem.
It’s also worth mentioning that people who deny their drinking habits often drink alone, too – and many drink first thing in the morning. This is all part of the same deceptive behavior. By the alcoholic’s logic, if no one sees, and you don’t admit it, can anyone even affirmatively say it happened?